The New York Times Defends Its Trump Fan Takeover

New York Times readers were outraged to see its Opinion pages filled with Trump supporters’ letters. ‘It’s my fault,’ editorial page editor James Bennet tells The Daily Beast.

Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

Loyal readers of the New York Times—a reliable source of editorial invective and fault-finding reportage concerning the 45th president (“Trump Is a Racist. Period,” blared the headline over a recent Charles M. Blow column)—were startled, and in some cases outraged, to turn to the Times’ Opinion page Thursday morning and discover that it was filled entirely by letters from Donald Trump fans, replete with flattering photos of the authors.

 Gone were the Gray Lady’s official stances on Trump’s serial misdeeds—typical example: a Jan. 12 editorial titled “Donald Trump Flushes Away America’s Reputation,” in which the Times Editorial Board opined: “Remember, Mr. Trump is not just racist, ignorant, incompetent and undignified. He’s also a liar.

Instead, the paper of record’s august editorial board allowed their most exclusive real estate—the Holy of Holies, so to speak, in the journalistic dominions of church and state—to be overrun and squatted upon by 14 ordinary citizens who voted for the former reality television star on Nov. 8, 2016, and continue to hold him in high regard.

“Not only did I vote for him,” wrote Ellen Mackler of New Haven, Connecticut, in one such letter to the editor, “but I also made more than 5,000 calls on his behalf (and I’ve been a registered Democrat for 40 years). So far I am thrilled with his performance.”

Mackler, 59, a former employee of the Israeli consulate who lives in a deep blue state that voted for Hillary Clinton, said she’s lost friends over her Trump support. When a Times editor alerted her that her letter would be published, she joked, “Ok, I’ll get ready for the onslaught.”

Philip Maymin, an associate professor of finance and analytics at the University of Bridgeport, told The Daily Beast that since his letter went online Wednesday night, he’s received nearly 100 emails—some of them rife with insults such as “moron.”

The Times’ unusual feature came as an unwelcome surprise for Trump-averse readers who depend on the Times to validate their anxiety and hostility. Among those caught unawares was the paper’s executive editor, Dean Baquet.

“Just to remind people, not only did I have nothing to do with this decision, I learned about it last night, literally when it started to show up online,” Baquet told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “If you read the Twitterati, they have no idea. They think that it’s my call.”

Baquet, however, stressed that he likes the Trump-friendly experiment: “It’s an interesting idea, speaking as somebody who cares about the Times as a reader and who cares about news.”

But aggrieved readers wasted no time in blaming Baquet—who runs the paper’s newsroom but has zero involvement in its editorial policies—for what they saw as an unforgiveable atrocity.

A Twitter user with handle “Shoq” posted: “The NYTimes brings us ‘Trump backer’ letter ‘in the spirit of debate?’ Where’s the fucking ‘debate?’ Sulzburger [a misspelt reference to the Times’ brand-new publisher, Arthur Gregg “A.G.” Sulzberger]  and @ deanbaquet have decided to kill what’s left of the paper. RIP. #MediaIStheProblem.”

A tweeter dubbed “WorldCitizen” replied: “I'll never stop saying it: The worst thing that has ever happened to the NYT is Dean Baquet. That's not a paper anymore. It became a cheap pamphlet.”

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Other social media attacks included Slate chief political correspondent (and former Daily Beast staffer) Jamelle Bouie’s musings: “in the interest of fairness the new york times gave its editorial page over to republican partisans, a few racists, and people you can fairly describe as delusional.”

A tweeter apparently from Cardiff, Wales, meanwhile, demanded: “Hey quick question did everyone at the New York Times have a stroke last night?”

On Thursday afternoon, the Times itself posted an article, consisting of (mostly furious) reader reactions.

Baquet may have absorbed some misdirected slings and arrows, but Editorial Page Editor James Bennet took responsibility.

“It’s my fault,” he told The Daily Beast, explaining that he decided a couple of days ago to turn his influential page over to Trump fans with the support of publisher A.G. Sulzberger, the 37-year-old son of Times Co. Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr.

Bennet said the 14 letters he published were culled from nearly 100 responses to the paper’s solicitation to Trump voters—Jan. 8 online and Jan. 9 in print—asking “whether they still supported the guy or not.”

“I thought what we got back was a really interesting group of letters from people who still support Trump, making in some cases complicated and nuanced arguments about why,” Bennet said, by way of defending his publishing decision. “A lot of our readers are baffled that anybody could still be supporting this guy. And our readers tell us that they are interested in encountering challenging opposing views. We were presented with this opportunity to give them unmediated, clear access to what these still-loyal Trump supporters think of the guy. It seemed interesting to me.”

Bennet added, however, that he understands why some people would be upset by his decision.

“Look, I don’t for a moment dismiss the real sense of anxiety that a lot of people have during this period,” he said. “There are people out there who feel understandably scared. But I think it’s because people don’t understand where the support [for Trump] is coming from, and part of our job is to inform them and help explain it. And we invited outside voices—often ones our readers disagree with…This is what we do.”

As for the Times’ editorials, however, “We’ve made a lot of criticisms of this administration, and we will continue doing that as long as they persist in their ways. But our readers deserve to understand how other people see what’s unfolding in Washington. To me, it seems totally consistent with doing good journalism. Do you think that’s wrong?”

While the letters are decidedly supportive of Trump, some of them are hardly valentines—damning him with faint praise.

“I went to the polls of a clothespin on my nose,” wrote Daniel Irwin of North Syracuse, New York. “I believed that Donald Trump could be a disaster, but the other branches of government would keep him in check….That said, I am shocked at how well President Trump is doing.”

Steven Landis of Hampton Bays, New York, wrote: “Granted we have the most unpresidential president of our time. Crude, rude, clueless dude—but I believe, with the help of his friends, he’s stumbling through one of the most effective presidencies in memory.”

Diehard Trump antagonist Lawrence O’Donnell, host of MSNBC’s 10 p.m. show The Last Word, is among the Times’ readers who applauded Bennet’s experiment.

“I eagerly read every word,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s the best way to understand what Trump supporters are seeing when they watch this presidency. They aren’t bothered by what a majority of Americans see.”

O’Donnell added this caveat, however: “The flaw in this kind of thing is that it is impossible to accurately represent Trump supporters since most of them would never write letters to the Times. This is probably a sample of only the most articlulate Trump supporters. The Times should have solicited letters from David Duke and other white supremacists to present a fuller picture of Trump’s appeal.”

While calling O’Donnell’s quibble “a subtle and interesting critique,” Bennet said there’s no way the Times would ever invite erstwhile Klansman Duke or other white supremacists to publish their thoughts in the paper.

“I think our boundaries are wide enough to accommodate the arguments of people supporting Donald Trump,” Bennet said, “but I think publishing David Duke, unmediated, in the New York Times making the case for Donald Trump would be outside our boundaries.”